Outside spending soars in the West’s key Senate races

Colorado and Alaska have the most expensive midterm battles in the region.

 

Less than three weeks remain before the midterm elections, and with control of the Senate at stake, both Democrats and Republicans are pouring money into the races at unprecedented rates. The GOP candidates need just six seats in blue states to flip the Senate. So far, outside spending (i.e. money spent by groups or individuals independently of party committees) in this election cycle has soared to almost $500 million, which means this year’s congressional elections officially passed the record for the most expensive in U.S. history, even after adjusting for inflation.

Elections have become so expensive, in part, because of a landmark 2010 decision known as Citizens United, in which the Supreme Court argued that campaign contributions were a form of political speech. The court struck down limits on the amount of money wealthy individuals, corporations, unions and other special interest groups could spend on elections. Thanks to that decision, campaign spending jumped by nearly $2 billion between 2008 and 2012. That money, pumped into ad campaigns designed to influence voters’ opinions about particular candidates, has come largely through two kinds of organizations — super PACs (political action committee) and tax-exempt nonprofits — which can spend whatever they want, so long as they don’t coordinate directly with candidates.

But while super PACs must disclose their donors, the nonprofits do not, though many of them spend just as lavishly as their more transparent counterparts. The latter are often referred to as “dark money” groups — think Americans for Prosperity that’s fed by Koch money — and overwhelmingly lean Republican.

Leading up to this year’s midterms, the majority of outside spending has been funneled into the most contentious Senate races, which include Colorado and Alaska. And across the West, even the less high-profile battles are part of the spending frenzy.

The biggest spenders

This year’s top-spending outside group is the left-leaning Senate Majority PAC, which has spent over $35 million funding Democratic candidates in tight races. The group’s highest donors are San-Francisco-based billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and Chicagoan Fred Eychaner, a powerful philanthropist and chairman of Newsweb Corporation. Coming in at number two and three, however, are the right-leaning American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which have spent over $34 million and $28 million respectively in support of Republican candidates.

The heavy-hitting Crossroads consortium, co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, attracts donations from industries like investment firms, and oil and gas companies. Other major donors include an executive search firm called Chartwell Partners and the American Jewish Coalition, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Although American Crossroads is a super PAC and must disclose its donors, the GPS branch does not, and nor does the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile on the left, Steyer has pumped almost $36 million into his newly formed super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, which has spent over $5 million against Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, who's vying for Mark Udall’s senate seat.

The most expensive races

The showdown in Colorado between Democrat Udall and Republican  Gardner has become the most expensive senate race in the West (and ranks number two nationwide). The race is attracting the most outside spending in the region and is closing in on $36 million. Alaska's U.S. senate race is the second most expensive in the West, and fifth nationwide, attracting over $27 million in political spending. Put Alaska First, the super PAC in support of the state’s Democratic incumbent, Mark Begich, tops the list for spending from any single-candidate super PAC in the U.S. Oregon's U.S. Senate race is in third place, with just over $2 million in outside spending so far — thanks in large part to the Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch-backed group that bankrolled a $1.6 million ad blitz against the state’s Democratic senator Jeff Merkley.

The Arizona U.S. House race between Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s successor, Ron Barber, and his Republican challenger, Martha McSally, deserves an honorable mention for expensive House races this midterm season. More outside money ($2.9 million) has been spent in the battle for Giffords’ former seat than in Senate races in Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and New Mexico, which has only seen $4,727. Meanwhile, Giffords has launched a blistering — and well-funded — attack of her own against anti-gun control candidates nationwide through her Americans for Responsible Solutions super PAC.

Stay tuned for more midterms coverage in our upcoming print edition.

Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News.  . Homepage illustration of Mark Udall and Cory Gardner courtesy of Flickr user DonkeyHotey.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • DEVELOMENT DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness is seeking a qualified Development Director to manage the fundraising success of our growing organization, including the team-driven implementation of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...